Exposing the Wrong in Deeds Long Past

By Martin Flanagan
The Age
October 2, 2010

IN 1971, when I was 16 and the deputy head boy of a Catholic boarding school, two much younger boys came to see me and the school captain one night in a highly emotional state. One boy had semen up his back. The other boy named a priest as being responsible. We told the rector, the priest was shipped interstate.

At university, I did a law degree. I knew what I had seen that night in 1971 was evidence, not hearsay, and I always thought it would one day return to me. And 30-odd years later, it did, a call from the police asking me if I had anything to say in relation to allegations of sexual misconduct at my old school in that year. I had long ago made up my mind about what I was going to do. The trauma of the boy who had been subjected to the sexual act was like that I later saw in a car accident victim.

Over the years, I had thought of contacting him to offer some message of support but my experiences as a journalist - in particular, a story to do with a serial rapist - had taught me not to make assumptions about the way people pattern sexual experiences of this kind into their lives.

But when the police rang, I was untroubled to say I was happy to provide a statement, which I did.

The hardest thing was being sure about my memory of the incident. I replayed it and replayed it in my head. In the end, the one thing I could say for certain was that my memory of the event never altered.

My great good fortune in the whole affair is that I had told an older brother, who had left the school only a few years before, what occurred at the time. When I rang and read him the statement I intended giving to the police, he said: "Well, that's what you told me when you were 16." At that time, I had no knowledge whatsoever of the evidence of the other people involved in the case. I still don't really.

I had to appear and give my evidence three times, twice by video, once in court. I did not find it that difficult to do although by that time I had done quite a bit of thinking about the trial process. I wasn't required to judge the man. I wasn't required to sentence him. I was required to give my evidence, to state my testimony. The priest was sentenced to two years' imprisonment.

After the trial, I looked for the boy on whose behalf I had given evidence. I found a quietly assured man in his early 40s. I would have liked to talk more to him but there were other people about and it didn't happen. All I could say was, "I never forgot you''.

I didn't go to court alone that day. My older brother came with me, the one I told what happened at the time. When no one went to visit the priest in prison, this same brother of mine did. When I tell that to people, they express surprise. Some don't like it, but I'm proud of what he did.

My father went to the war a nominal Catholic and came back a bush Buddhist. Way back to my earliest memories, I always liked his way better than the church's.

The experience of the Burma Railway during World War 2 caused my father to condense the Christian gospels to three or four lines: "I was hungry and you fed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was in prison and you visited me." The man I gave evidence against was in prison and my brother visited him.

I have no regrets about giving evidence, but, at the same time, having gone through the process, I can see how miscarriages of justice could easily occur in these cases. If you want to know what I mean, get a group of people you knew 30 years ago together, ask them to recall an incident of some consequence that occurred at the time and then ask them, one by one, to recount it. The picture that emerges will be incomplete and conflicting.

About a year after I gave evidence, filmmaker Roman Polanski was arrested, entering Switzerland, for sexually abusing a 13-year-old girl 30-odd years before. In 1977, Polanski pleaded guilty to having unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old model he took for a photo shoot in a hot tub at movie star Jack Nicholson's Hollywood home. Polanski was originally indicted on six felony counts, including rape by use of drugs, child molestation and sodomy.

There was a furious international debate as to whether Polanski should be made to face the charges. I found I had changed. I had a contempt for those who said he should be let off because he's an artist.


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